Pakistanis plant trees to relieve heat in one of the world’s fastest growing cities

Mulazim Hussain is proud of the trees he has planted in the Clifton district of Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi.

Surrounded by neem trees and vegetables sprouting from undergrowth, the 61-year-old recalls a time a few years ago when the area was a giant, informal garbage dump.

“Now there is greenery and happiness,” he said, speaking near a patch of trees amid a barren plain bordered by the sea on one side and tower blocks and offices in the distance on the other.

“Children come in the evening to play, people come for a walk.

“I’ve been raising these plants like my kids for the past four years,” he added, taking a break from work during a fierce summer heat wave.

Wearing a white-brown scarf and a loose, cream-colored shirt, he collected dry grass from the ground and watered his beloved trees during a reporter’s recent visit to the urban forest plantation project.

At the end of the day, he turned the hose on himself to cool down and clean up before heading home on his motorcycle.

The skyline of a South Asian city is in the background of a green park with windy dusty paths in it
The Clifton Urban Forest is located next to Karachi’s business district in a former garbage dump.(Reuters)

The father of two is employed by an urban afforestation project in a government-owned park in the posh Clifton area of ​​Karachi, run by Shahzad Qureshi, who has worked on similar projects in other Pakistani cities and abroad. .

It is one of dozens of state and private planting initiatives in Pakistan, where forest cover is well below the average level in South Asia.

Trees absorb carbon dioxide, the emissions of which contribute to global warming.

A South Asian man in white overalls holds a garden hose while watering tall plants with city buildings behind them
Green spaces like the Clifton Urban Forest can provide much-needed relief from the intense heat of summer.(Reuters: Akhtar Soomro)

Memories of the deadly heatwave of 2015 in Pakistan

The aim in Clifton is to counterbalance the rapid urbanization in Karachi.

It is a sprawling port city with 17 million inhabitants where the breakneck expansion of roads and buildings means that there is less and less space for trees and parks.

Mr Qureshi wanted to provide shade for residents who wanted to escape the rising temperatures.

A heat wave in 2015 killed more than 400 people in the city in three days, and temperatures in the surrounding Sindh region reached record highs this year.

The trees can also attract local wildlife, reduce urban flooding and provide new food sources.

A South Asian man rides a motorcycle near a small urban forest next to tawny buildings
A man rides a motorcycle on the edge of a small urban forest in Karachi’s Saddar district. (Reuters: Akhtar Soomro)

“The greater the tree cover of the city, the more cooling, with a difference of up to 10 [degrees] Celsius when you’re surrounded by trees,” he said, adding that the project only used native species.

“As you plant…it attracts insects and different kinds of birds come in. Currently, mongooses roam the park, and four or five kinds of chameleons.

“You give them a home, you feed them and let it happen. Nature is so beautiful.”

Does planting 10 billion trees make a difference?

Heavy traffic in South Asian city moves under a bridge with a banner about planting trees
Only 5.4 percent of Pakistan is covered by forest.(Akhtar Soomro)

The total forest cover in Pakistan, which is home to more than 220 million people, is about 5.4 percent, according to Syed Kamran Hussain, manager of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province at the national branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

That is 24 percent in neighboring India and 14.5% in Bangladesh.

The previous government announced a massive afforestation program that envisaged planting 10 billion trees between 2019 and 2023.

A South Asian man in white shirt helps a boy and girl to plant a small tree in a graveyard
Children help former energy worker Irfan Husain plant seedlings in a graveyard.(Reuters: Akhtar Soomro)

“Pakistan is among the top 10 most vulnerable countries affected by global warming,” said Syed Kamran Hussain.

“After oceans, trees are the second largest sink of carbon.”

Some climate change experts question the impact of afforestation projects — planting trees where there were previously none — in urban environments.

The choice of species is important as it influences the amount of saplings that may need watering – an important factor in Pakistan where water is generally scarce.

And whether you should plant trees at all is not an easy question: the benefits are not always obvious and significant investment is required to grow saplings into mature trees.

‘Visual success won’t dent’

A close-up of the shirt-sleeved hands of an elderly South Asian man holding eggplants in front of a green field
Mulazim Hussain shows off aubergines grown in the Clifton Urban Forest, just a few kilometers from the heart of Karachi.(Reuters: Akhtar Soomro)

“What’s missing in urban forestry is a holistic approach to the environment,” said Usman Ashraf, a doctoral researcher in development studies at the University of Helsinki.

“It’s about visual success, the numbers, little patches here and there.

“It won’t even dent the environmental damage in these cities.”

Masood Lohar – who founded the Clifton Urban Forest, which has planted trees on the beach not far from Mr Qureshi’s project – said afforestation can help make Karachi more resilient to natural disasters and encourage wildlife to thrive. settle.

Experts say it can also provide relief from heat waves, where the sea breeze gets hotter as it passes through concrete structures, while roads and roofs absorb heat.

Where to plant is an important question, with wealthier urban areas often better off in terms of tree cover.

A bearded man with a garden hose waters a lush green patch in a South Asian setting with the city skyline behind it
Local residents say urban greenery is ‘a blessing’ during Karachi’s scorching hot summer.

In the absence of more trees, “we are turning the city into hell,” Lohar said.

At Sakhi Hassan Cemetery in the center of town, small saplings grow between uneven tombstones that are close together, while larger trees provide shade from the midday sun.

Mohammad Jahangir, 35, is a caretaker there who waters the plants for a small donation from relatives who have sown them.

Seen from above, the cemetery is a sea of ​​green that contrasts with a low-rise neighbourhood.

“We don’t feel the heat here in the cemetery, while the city is buzzing,” Jahangir said.

“These trees are a blessing.”

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